In the readings for the Tuesday of the 30th Week in Ordinary Time, the Gospel is from Luke. In it, Jesus asks twice, “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God?” He first compares it to a mustard seed and then to yeast.
Back when I ate bread on a regular basis, I baked my own bread. Most store bread tasted like cardboard to me. So, I know something of baking good bread. Jesus mentions throwing yeast in with flour so that it rises. Truth be told, in bread baking, you need more than mere flour and yeast. Water must be added. Sometimes other ingredients such as eggs, oil, and such are added.
I know all analogies fall apart at some time, but allow me to run with this.
We are told the Kingdom of God is like yeast which transforms the whole of the dough. The yeast is mixed in with the other ingredients (kneaded). The grace God gives us is supposed to transform us entirely, not partially. The Kingdom is not meant to be allowed into certain compartments of our lives, but into the totality of our being and our lives.
Every sacrament we receive is like this yeast. God, through His grace, inserts that life of the Kingdom into us. For it to reach its fruition, several others factors must also be at play; we cannot be perpetually passive receptors of this grace. As in a loaf of bread, other ingredients need to be in play or the yeast is left dormant or is wasted.
The flour is our lives; our human bodies and human souls. It is the context of our lives that this yeast is deposited. We do not give sacraments to animals. We do not give them to plants. They don’t need them. We do. We need sacraments because, unlike the rest of the created order, we have the ability to freely choose to love. To properly use this gift (aka “the image and likeness of God”), we must be open to what is happening. We need the Kingdom inserted within us to help us live as members of the Kingdom. The sacraments concretize this as signs and symbols we can understand, so that our bodies and souls may be filled with that Kingdom. Our bodies, though, are not all that is needed.
There are two other essential ingredients needed: our minds and our souls. We are spiritual and rational creatures; the sacraments are not just meant to influence and transform our bodies, but our minds and souls as well. The yeast isn’t meant to transform part of our lives, but the totality of our lives; every crevice and nook. Hence, the disposition of our minds and souls matter.
The Necessary Ingredient of our Mind
The Catholic faith is not an emotion-based religion; it is a reason-based religion. Belief matters. The intellectual premises we hold matter. For the yeast that is the Kingdom of God to be activated, we must believe that the sacrament is what we say it is. It is why we do training on any of the sacraments. It is why we stress you understand what is going on. Your action in receiving a sacrament must be an act of free will. Even in the case of infant baptism, the parents must understand and believe what is happening actually happens. Without that belief or act of free will, the sacrament is NOT to be given. This is why I cannot give a dead person a sacrament. This is why I cannot force a person to receive a sacrament. This is why I cannot give any other sacrament to a person if they lack the ability to understand what is happening; it is why we wait till a child has reached the ‘age of reason’ before either Confirmation or the Eucharist are given. Without the intellectual capacity, a key ingredient to make the dough rise is gone.
This is why a person must intend what the Church intends in the reception of the sacrament. For example, if a person entering into a marriage does not intend what the church intends in regard to matters such as fidelity, permanence, having children and such, I cannot allow the marriage to take place. It invalidates the marriage. It is why I cannot do an infant baptism if the parents are against it or have no intention of raising their child Catholic. I could go on, but the point is that our positive mental and reasoned assent is necessary, even if we do not completely understand fully the mysteries we celebrate. We must be mentally open to the reception of the grace given. (cf Code of Canon Law 913. 914)
The Necessary Ingredient of our Soul
Save baptism and confession, our souls must be in a state of grace to receive them properly. Just as the dispositions of our minds matter in the reception of a sacrament, so too, the disposition of our soul matters. Having rational souls, our openness spiritually to the reception of a sacrament can fulfill or render defunct the grace given us. To lose the state of grace is to have mortal sin on our soul. We are given this grace through baptism. The grace, specifically, is what is called sanctifying grace; a grace by which the void left by original sin is filled by God’s action and enters us into an eternal relationship with God. When we choose to mortally sin, we cast out this sanctifying grace by our own choice. Without that sanctifying grace, any sacrament, save Confession, is rendered void by our own choice. It is in Confession that the sanctifying grace given at Baptism, necessary for sacramental grace to have effect, lost by the willful choice to mortally sin, is restored, again by God’s grace.
Without Confession, every act of a sacrament is damaged or destroyed. It is why we ask a person entering into matrimony, being confirmed, being ordained, being anointed with the Oil of the Infirmed, and receiving Communion to go to confession if they are aware of mortal sin being committed by them. This is a serious matter. That sanctifying grace must be present in our souls for the reception of Marriage, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick, Confirmation, and Eucharist. Each of these strengthens the already existent bonds formed by God’s sanctifying grace (cf CCC 1391). That lack of sanctifying grace excommunicates us from that relationship with God and with His people! A person in this state should not receive these sacraments until this situation is rectified through sacramental confession (cf Code of Canon Law 915, 916) So heinous is this, that in reference to the reception of Communion, St Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 11: 27-29, that to receive unworthily is to call upon the wrath of God upon ourselves. One does not waste God’s grace without consequence, especially the grace given to us through the Sacrifice of the Cross.
Hence, the necessity of Confession is made plain. If God does indeed deposit the Kingdom of God in us in each of the sacraments, whether to initiate (Baptism), reinstate (Confession), or strengthen and define (Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Eucharist, Matrimony, & Holy Orders) our souls must be open. To close off our minds through ignorance or our souls through sinfulness is to waste the grace given. God’s grace isn’t passive or magic; it requires our intentional response. The yeast needs the other ingredients so as to make bread.
Here’s The Kicker
I know, this might come as a shock to most Catholics. In most parishes, sacramental prep is more like jumping through hoops to get a desired merit badge. We give some effort to the intellectual preparation, but as to the spiritual, we lack. I believe that the dearth of the devotional life has led to some of this. I believe the compartmentalizing of our lives into God and Not God sections has led to this. I believe the almost entirely absent understanding of personal sin (replaced with corporate sin; aka…other people’s sins) has led to this. Add to this the miniscule confession times, and you would think we are entirely okay with ignorant or sinful reception of the sacraments! You would think we are okay with a minimalist merit badge type of faith life.
Perhaps, this is why the Church in the west is dying. Maybe this is why Mass attendance is plummeting. It’s not that we demand too much, it’s that we have compromised so much away that we have rendered the sacramental life of the Church as irrelevant to our day-to-day lives. It is why the Kingdom of God is flushed from so much of our lives.
As a pastor, I want the grace given in each sacrament to find its mark and transform the soul given it. It is why I do adult education, make it my business to know what our youth and RCIA candidates are being taught, make it my business to know what series are being used in my school and other educational outlets, and wildly expand the confession times. It is why I write these long columns. I, as a pastor, want you to receive that Kingdom of God given you through the sacraments in such a way so as to produce much fruit in your life, your family members’ lives, and in each parishioner’s life! That fruit can transform anything it touches because that fruit is saturated with God’s grace. As I want to see each and every one of you in heaven, I will continue to teach this. It makes sense. It is reasonable. It might be uncomfortable and challenging; but that is why we need God’s grace.